We are generally comfortable with the belief that, with representatives chosen through free and fair elections, the conditions for democracy are in place and provide the optimum basis for government. However, elections are not in themselves the culmination of democracy but a stage in a process, which voters can reasonably expect will ultimately benefit themselves and the country. This is the democratic dividend, which can be seen as consisting of four linked elements.
The first element of the democratic dividend is that electors have a meaningful choice of the kind of future that they aspire to. The process of delivering this component of the dividend begins before an election. If voters are not offered a range of candidates that includes someone who reflects something close to their own views they are, in effect, disenfranchised. There are many parts of the world where voters are offered just one candidate and it is easy to believe that the situation here is quite different. But, in reality, there is also a serious problem over the democratic dividend in our own country.
It has been many years since the hard left and the hard right have stood candidates in any but a handful of constituencies and, in terms of party labels, the extremes of politics appear to have largely disappeared. This may be seen as a move towards greater consensus, but the absence of radical alternatives has also caused many to disengage from politics and has provided fertile ground for an instinctive rejection of the middle ground. Corbynism, Trumpism and the more extreme forms of Brexitism are examples of what can happen when, over a period, the electorate is denied a sufficient range of political options; excluding them from the democratic dividend that they should be entitled to expect.
The second element of the dividend is the election of a government which is able in to make decisions relating to the security of the state and its citizens, to raise money to pay for essential services, to pass laws for the benefit of society and to administer and enforce the law. An election that fails to deliver this element of the democratic dividend also fails to be genuinely democratic. Italy had sixty-one changes of government between 1946 and 1994, and Belgium has recently had a period of when there was no elected government for eighteen months. But the UK has been well served in this regard, with an effective government being sworn in shortly after each general election. After the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats agreed to form a coalition with the Conservatives, on the basis that to have sat on the side-lines would have denied the electorate this part of the democratic dividend
The third element of the democratic dividend is that the views of the electorate should be reflected in the legislature in proportion to the number of voters that share those views. In the UK, the views of a considerable proportion of the electorate are currently grossly under-represented in Parliament, undermining the concept that all voters are equal and denying many the representation they should be entitled to expect. Thus, some form of proportional representation becomes a prerequisite of a democracy, only limited to the extent that it conflicts with the need for effective government. Most other countries achieve a reasonable balance between these two objectives and the experience of the 2010-2015 coalition suggests that should be possible to achieve it also in the UK.
The fourth element of the dividend is more complex and is based on what we understand to be the role of a Member of Parliament. Edmund Burke, in the late eighteenth century, put forward a definition which has been largely accepted to this day. He argued that MPs should not simply act as mouthpieces for their constituents but use their judgement on what was in their constituents’ interests and the interests of the country, on the understanding that the electors would make their own judgement on how they had been served and vote accordingly in the next election.
This, fourth, element of the democratic dividend depends on the manner in which MPs collectively exercise their judgment and leads to the question of whether changes brought about by our government have really maximised the wellbeing of electors. The current situation in the UK suggests that the answer to this question is no. Society is divided, there is gross inequality between individuals and between regions, public services are increasingly seen to be failing and exploited by private companies to make inflated profits, hard-working people find life a struggle. And above all, the public believe that the Government does not listen – a sense which is often expressed as: “it makes no difference so why bother”. The result has been a reduction in democratic participation and the growth of inward looking, nationalistic movements such as UKIP (and the Alt Right in the USA), which openly challenge the principles of tolerance and inclusion which have dominated politics in Western democracies since the defeat of fascism at the end of the Second World War.
The failings of our electoral system have allowed the political elite to ignore the interests of large sections of potential voters, in particular by treating the capitalist system and globalisation as ends in themselves, rather than as the means to achieve well-being for all sections of the population. Capitalism enables individuals to realise their potential through inventiveness, hard work and willingness to take risks, and it has driven economic growth, which remains the yardstick by which society’s progress is measured. But it has also generated inequality and an ever-expanding range of wants far exceeding any reasonable needs. In 1928, J M Keynes forecast that, with a 2% annual increase in capital formation and a 1% annual increase in efficiency, within 100 years everyone would be able to meet all their needs by working three hours a day.
The reality, however, is that while, overall, the country is enormously richer, many families need two salaries and long hours of work to be able to purchase what they feel they need, impoverishing family life and denying them the quality of life they aspire to. An alternative vision of society is needed if voters are to benefit from this fourth element of the democratic dividend. Greater opportunities for people to retire early and to work shorter hours while still maintaining an acceptable standard of living could help to secure a better balance – leading to lower material consumption, but greater opportunities for individuals to live full lives, better engagement with society and less hostility to those they see as outsiders and a threat their prosperity.
Globalisation is the other force which elected governments have failed to control in the interests of society as a whole. Removing trade barriers allows production to move to countries where the costs of production are lower, driving economic growth and reducing prices in the shops. But if tariffs are removed without measures to ensure that alternative jobs are created, for example, for former garment workers in Rochdale (and at the same to time to allow Bangladesh to progress to producing higher value-added products), many electors will be denied this element of their demographic dividend.
In conclusion, analysing our current crisis in terms of the democratic dividend leads to the conclusion that the first requirement for ensuring that our country holds to its long-established principles of democracy and tolerance is to reform our electoral system. A genuine choice at the ballot box between different visions of the future, coupled with the introduction of a fair voting system, will oblige politicians to work to ensure that capitalism and globalisation work for the general good. And it will encourage a much larger proportion of the electorate, who at the present feel deeply alienated by conventional politics, to have confidence that they too can enjoy the democratic dividend they should be entitled to in a functioning democracy.